Once & Future: Kieron Gillen on the “Gleeful Reinvention of Arthurian Mythos”

A dark, hooded figure holds a sword that reflects the images of Bridgette (determined) and Duncan (fearful)

Based upon Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King collects and revises several stories of Arthurian legend, creating a whole new cohesive tale for its time. Reinventing the story of the mighty king of England once more, Kieron Gillen puts a much darker modern spin on the tale with Once & Future from BOOM! Studios.

With Dan Mora on illustrations and Tamra Bonvillain on colours, Once & Future tells the story of Duncan, a not-so-suave man who loves his enigmatic grandmother dearly, but has no idea that she’s a former monster hunter. Duncan’s got no choice but to hold on tight when a group of Nationalists seek to revive a villain from Arthurian myth back to life. Duncan has little time to learn about this world of magic, mysticism, and Mora’s incredibly disturbing depictions of the Questing Beast (omg!), and readers get to come along for this wild ride.

Gillen has been busy with lots of other things like DIE, Wic+Div, and earning an honourary Doctorate of Arts at Stafford University, but thankfully found the time to answer a few questions about Once & Future for WWAC.

Where did the idea for an Arthurian horror story come from?

It actually came indirectly. I was thinking of the colonialism which tends to be hard baked into the adventure genre. Taking these mummies and turning them just into these villains. However, there’s so much to love in the genre, in character, adventure, stakes, humanity and the frisson of mythology blurring with fiction. Is there any way to do that which side-steps all that? The idea hit me: you’d do it with British Folklore, like the Arthurian mythos. Do a horror take on all of that, and you’d be away.

That idea lay in my research files for a few years until BOOM! told me Dan was interested in working with me. I pulled it from its tomb and started considering it seriously. It’s moved in a different direction from that starting point, but that’s where it came from.

Aside from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, are there other stories of Arthurian legend that interest you?

There’s not much bar the title that lifts from T.H. White, actually. My process of research has actually been much more on a meta level – as in, I’ve stepped back and looked at how the stories of Arthur have changed over time. I was interested in when major ideas and characters were introduced, and how characters changed roles depending on the time. How they changed from “Histories” to “Romances” and everything. I’m more interested in that than any specific story of Arthur – though obviously I’ve read a fair bit. It was my excuse to finally have a nose at Le Morte D’Arthur, for example.

Are the characters modelled after anyone in particular?

Modelled is a strong word, but the inspiration for Duncan and Bridgette was me thinking of a relationship axis I’d never written and hadn’t seen much of in genre fiction. The Grandmother/Grandson wasn’t something I’d ever written or seen much of, and my own relationship with my gran who lived around the corner was really influential on me. There’s some elements that have been inspired by then, but it’s more a core grain I build someone around.

I did name her Bridgette in honour of my gran though.

Bridgette and her grandson Duncan

What would you do if you discovered your most unassuming family member was actually a monster hunter?

It’s worth noting that the character Bridgette isn’t exactly unassuming. I suspect if many people who knew Bridgette were told she was a monster hunter they’d go “Yeah, that seems fairly likely.”

But my most unassuming family member? That’d be my two year old niece. If I found that she stopped her wobbling the second everyone was out the room and bounded out in hunt of monstrous prey, I would be totally and utterly petrified.

Bridgette reveals her stash of buried weapons to Duncan in the forest

There are elements of real-world political darkness at play in this story — the desire to return Britain to its former glory certainly sets off some alarm bells. Is this something the story will touch on in more depth?

This is tricky. I don’t want to over-sell the book. Without a doubt, it’s a book which has gained urgency because of Brexit. It’s an examination of national mythology, how it’s used and where it gets us. Hell, the story is put into motion by a group of English ultranationalists. Those things are there, and there’s certainly a lot of resonances. However, I think it’d be deceptive to oversell those elements. It’d be like selling the Indiana Jones movies as Anti-Nazi texts. Yeah, it is, but it’s not what the story is mainly about.

That said, as another interviewer noted to me, releasing Indiana Jones in 1942 would 100% be viewed as a political thing – which is 100% true. Equally, it wrestles with the nature of these questions considerably more explicitly, along with all the family chaos and rampant questing beasts. So, yes, there’s more than Indiana Jones to this, but I wouldn’t want anyone to pick up Once & Future expecting Maus, y’know? In the idiom of ’00s Next Wave, this is mainly about kick, ‘splode and gleeful reinvention of Arthurian Mythos.

I may have made up the last bit.

The first issue of Once & Future, on shelves today, has already sold out of its first and second printings, with a new cover from Mora to come.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.